South America 1989 travel blog

The Railway followed the river valley

Snow covered peaks appeaered in the distance

One of the many vendors - this one selling chunks off a...

The Barren Altiplano


The lady at the hotel purchased first class tickets for our journey to Puno. We really wanted seats in the tourist car, where the doors are locked to keep out the thieves, but no matter, first class would have to do. The journey was to take twelve hours, and we stored our heavy bags on the overhead rack, and took our places for the 8.0 am departure.

We soon realised why the journey was to take so long. The train stopped every couple of miles to let peddlers on and off. The aisleway of our carriage was bustling with activity throughout the entire journey, Indian women and children carrying huge baskets of bread, or bags of tangerines, cheese, candies, meat and cigarettes. One lady carried an enormous basket filled with brown paper obviously containing something very large. She placed the basket on the table next to ours and unwrapped the brown paper. Inside was practically a whole roast sheep. She took out a long knife and hacked off enormous chunks, which she placed on pieces of torn off brown paper, and sold to our neighbours.

There were groups of singers and musicians, playing either real or improvised instruments, a comb and paper in one case. One young man was sticking long nails up his nose in an attempt to "earn an honest living".

At each stop crowds of ragged little urchins gathered outside the windows. Some holding school books, would ask for pens, but mostly they wanted food. We threw pens, bread, tangerines, peanuts and potato chips to them, always trying to aim in the direction of the ones that looked the most needy.

At one point the inspector came to check our tickets. He looked up at our bags on the rack and shook his head, muttering in Spanish that they could easily be snatched. It seemed impossible to us that such heavy bags could easily be snatched, but our fellow travellers explained that the thieves board when the train stops and run through the carriage grabbing what they can en-route.

We unclipped the shoulder straps from my bag, threaded it through the slats of the overhead rack, - and fastened it to Susan's bag. Susan did the same to fasten hers to Lynn's, and so on. We also used belts to secure the bags to each other, as well as to the rack.

If they tried to take one of our bags, they would have to take all five. We felt happier, but the locals told us that they would only be really safe if they were fastened with a padlock and chain. At least the thieves only wanted our belongings.

We did not know if the twelve hour journey was going to take us through any of the areas in which the "Shining Path" terrorists were active. Apparently the place where there was the greatest risk of thieves was Juliaca station. We would be reaching there at dusk.

With so much activity on the train the day passed quickly, but we watched our bags constantly.

The scenery was magnificent. The railway followed the river valley, and for the first part we had lush green mountains on either side and farms in the valley. We passed through herds of llama and red adobe villages.

Gradually the mountains became more rugged and snow covered peaks appeared in the distance. Later still the slopes became more gradual as we approached Lake Titicaca and the barren Altiplano.

As we neared Juliaca we became more nervous for our bags. The light was disappearing fast and we waited in vain for the electric lights in the carriage to be turned on.

The only way to describe Juliaca was a hell-hole. The people who lined the tracks as we entered, you would not want to meet in broad daylight, let alone on a dark night. As we pulled into the station the carriage was almost totally dark and the platforms were crowded and chaotic.

Two of us remained seated to guard the small bags under the tables and seats, while the other three stood up on the seats to guard the bags on the overhead rack. We had one small flashlight between the five of us and had to do the best we could,

Suddenly, there was a lot of screaming and shouting in the far end of the carriage, near the door, and minutes later several armed guards ran through the carriage.

In total darkness and with very little knowledge of the language, it was difficult at first to figure out quite what had happened, but we found out later from the other passengers that a robber had run into the train, knife in hand, and cut down a pair of tennis shoes which was hanging from someone's bag.

The lights came on as we left Juliaca and we breathed a sigh of relief, both for the light and also for the fact that the train was moving again.

The relief did not last very long. Locals informed us that the station at Puno was almost as bad as Juliaca. Our guide books warned us that the best course of action was to stay on the train as long as possible, in order to let the crowds subside, and then find a taxi as quickly as possible.

However, we were approached by a reputable tour operator, who had boarded the train at Juliaca. For about thirty three cents each, he would escort us to a waiting bus and deliver us to a reputable hotel.

With another half dozen or so tourists, we made quite a large group, and we made our way safely to the waiting bus. The hotel, which cost about two dollars a night was basic, but clean and secure.

After delightful Cuzco, our first impression of Puno was a "dingy hole", but we found a restaurant, where we had a welcome meal, and where I sampled my first "Pisco Sour”, the well known local drink.

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